Snape and Dumbledore: The Unnecessary Bargain

by D.W. Hill (

With several rereads of DH under my belt, it is now time to reflect upon what has just happened. To put things in context, let me remind you that I have long been a Snape supporter. In my essay “Severus Snape: A Portrait in Subtlety” (posted on MuggleNet 3/3/07), I confessed that Snape’s murder of Dumbledore had been the worst thing which had ever happened to me while reading a book. In fact, I felt so betrayed that I hid the book, not wanting it anywhere near me. Upon reflection, however, I ultimately came up with my theories on his innocence, the reasons he killed Dumbledore and other matters, many of which – with the notable exception of my disastrous speculations on Horcruxes – turned out to be not far off the mark.

My experience with DH, though not as dramatic, was also emotionally wrenching. I began reading with the full confidence that Snape would emerge as truly worthy of Dumbledore’’s trust and equally confident that – with so many enemies on both sides – he would not survive.

However, once it was clear that Snape had given Voldemort the date when the Order of the Phoenix planned to move Harry out of Privet Drive and that he had cursed off George’s ear, I was sure that my faith in Snape’s loyalty to Dumbledore had been misplaced. I read on with a strong sense of embarrassment and alarm that I had been so wrong and that Snape’s loyalty to Dumbledore had become so important to me. I dreaded the end of the book, not for any reason related to the outcome, but because I would not have it to distract myself from the serious self examination which I knew must soon occur.

Then, the silver doe appeared in the forest and lead Harry to Gryffindor’s sword. I experienced a euphoria which swept away all traces of embarrassment and self doubt. Since we had never seen Snape’s Patronus and Rowling had so consistently refused to tell us what it was … Well, it had to be him! Confident that Snape would be vindicated, I read on, but the familiar dread of him dying loomed with every page. My certainty that he would not survive book seven did not soften the blow.

My reaction upon finishing the book for the first time was relief that Snape had at least been publicly vindicated by Harry, though it unfortunately happened after his death. I was also grateful to Rowling that she had portrayed Harry as forgiving Snape to the extent that he not only named his second son – the one with Lily’s eyes – after him but had even told the boy that Severus was probably the bravest man he ever knew.

There were, nonetheless, questions. For instance, why was Snape’s love for Lily and their friendship not sufficient to keep him away from Voldemort? This essay, however, will deal with the question which we have all been grappling with for years. What exactly was it that had convinced Dumbledore so thoroughly of Snape’s trustworthiness? True to form, the answer is not spelled out for us, but requires a little thought and reflection.

As I had contended in my four-part series of essays, “Dumbledore’’s Trust in Snape” (posted on MuggleNet June 2007), Dumbledore’’s trust in Severus Snape is not based upon an Unbreakable Vow. In fact, there was not only no UV, but no “I promise,” no handshake, nothing at all whether magical or Muggle to formalize Snape’s shift of loyalty to Dumbledore.

But could it really be as simple as the fact that Snape was the “useful spy” to whom Cornelius Fudge refers in the Three Broomsticks before Christmas in PoA? I had long believed that Snape was, indeed, that spy, the spy who warned Dumbledore that Voldemort was after the Potters. Nonetheless, I did not then, nor do I now, feel that Snape telling Dumbledore about Voldemort’s plans to target Lily in itself is enough to warrant such steadfast trust.

The trust Dumbledore places in Snape is an informed trust. What Dumbledore needs, what the gravity of the situation demands, what Snape so consistently gives him is not merely a friend whose intentions were good, but one who had the abilities and the inner drive necessary to accomplish uncommonly difficult and unpredictable tasks over many years.

There are at least three things which combine to convince Dumbledore that he can rely on Snape. First though, let’s look at what Dumbledore’’s trust does and does not entail. We have known all along that Dumbledore trusts Snape to teach at Hogwarts and relies on Snape to protect Harry from Quirrell in PS/SS. He also has confidence that Snape can function as a spy without being detected by Voldemort.

Prior to DH, I was convinced that whether Dumbledore told him or he figured it out himself, Snape had to know about the Horcruxes. Dumbledore, to my chagrin, does not tell Snape about the Horcruxes. His reasoning, however, has more to do with the dangers of Voldemort extracting that information from him than Snape’s loyalty. Furthermore, Snape does not figure it out himself.

Dumbledore also trusts Snape to heal him and keep his mouth shut about the ring. Even though Snape doesn’t know that it is a Horcrux, hearing about an ugly old ring would certainly have given Voldemort pause.

Dumbledore also trusts that, when all is said and done, Snape will be willing to kill him to spare him from the lingering death which the curse on the ring will cause and, more imminent on the night he dies, the savage death he would have experienced at the hands of Greyback. Dumbledore also trusts that Snape will watch over Hogwarts after his death.

In addition, Dumbledore trusts Snape with that one final piece of the puzzle, the terrible knowledge that Harry himself must die because Voldemort had inadvertently made him into a Horcrux, though Dumbledore doesn’t use that term. He trusts that Snape, in spite of knowing that Harry loathes him, will find a way to share that information with Harry at the right time.

Dumbledore does not share with Snape, however, his suspicion that Harry’s willingness to sacrifice himself would result in his survival. It’s a good thing he didn’t. In the shape Snape was in when he handed over his memories to Harry, it would have been difficult or impossible for him to modify them. The knowledge that Dumbledore expected him to live would have hampered Harry’s ability to make a full sacrifice. If Snape had tried to modify his memories and done an inexpert job, as Slughorn had done, Harry would have noticed and would no doubt have been suspicious of all of Snape’s information.

The greatest evidence of the completeness and depth of Dumbledore’’s trust in Snape involves a part of the plan which unfortunately never comes to pass. We learn about it in Chapter Thirty-Five, “King’s Cross.” Dumbledore confirms Harry’s insight that he, Dumbledore, had intended for Snape to have his wand, the Elder Wand – the most powerful wand ever made. The idea is that, if Snape was still the wand’s master when he died, the power of the wand would die with him. The Elder wand is not something you would leave with someone whom you suspected of even the slightest power-hungry leanings or faintest traces of mixed feelings about Voldemort.

It does not appear that Dumbledore actually explained anything about his wand to Snape. If he had known, Snape would have made sure he had Dumbledore’’s wand prior to killing him. He would have asked Draco where the wand was. Then, he would have asked him to summon the wand and disarmed Draco.

What is clear, however, is that Voldemort has talked to Snape about his new wand prior to summoning him to the Shrieking Shack on the night they both die. Snape obviously knows that Voldemort believes that this new wand has uncommon properties. He has seen Voldemort do powerful magic with it. Voldemort refers to it as the Elder Wand and mentions the legend of its extraordinary powers in a casual way, and Snape does not act as though this is new information to him.

Voldemort does not tell Snape, however, that his new wand was taken from Dumbledore’’s tomb until moments before he orders Nagini to kill him. Nonetheless, Snape was bright and observant and I’m betting he would have long since recognized it as the wand he had seen so many times in Dumbledore’’s hand.

What follows is an example of exactly how justified Dumbledore’’s trust in Severus Snape is. Lucius Malfoy had been sent to Snape with the message that Voldemort requires a service of him. If he had already recognized Dumbledore’’s wand, he probably already knew that Voldemort would put two and two together, concluding that the wand actually belongs to Snape and that Voldemort must, therefore, kill him.

He can’t tell Voldemort the truth, that it was Draco who disarmed Dumbledore, because to do so would endanger Draco’s life. He is still bound to protect Draco both by the Unbreakable Vow he makes with Narcissa in HBP and his duty to protect Hogwarts students. This time, unlike his killing of Dumbledore, that duty comes into conflict with his ultimate responsibility, to deliver the final piece of the puzzle to Harry.

It would have been so much more convenient to tell Voldemort the truth. Snape could have then argued that the loyalty of the Elder Wand was to the person who had disarmed Dumbledore, not the one who killed him. To assuage his guilt, he could have suggested that killing Draco was not necessary, that he need only be disarmed. He would have probably failed, since Voldemort so enjoys killing. Nevertheless, he could have taken the heat off himself and at least had a partially clear conscience.

Snape’s growing dread and his knowledge that Voldemort is keeping Nagini uncommonly close, indicating that it is time for him to tell Harry the last piece of the puzzle, account for Snape’s obvious distress during the final minutes of his life. He tries unsuccessfully to convince Voldemort to allow him to leave. He even raises his wand, though he doesn’t use it.

Snape maintains his cover till the end, fooling Voldemort into believing that he is a faithful Death Eater. Providence intervenes by providing Snape the opportunity for the magical equivalent of a death-bed confession. Even his dying act – giving Harry the crucial memories – is governed by his devotion to Dumbledore.

How then does Dumbledore know that Snape will be capable of such extreme sacrifices and that he is deserving of his trust? The first component of Dumbledore’’s trust is, of course, the fact that Snape does tip him off about Voldemort’s plans to target the Potters.

Additionally, two curious things occur in Chapter Thirty-Three, “The Prince’s Tale.” First, let’s look at the scene in which Snape tells Dumbledore that Voldemort intends to hunt down the Potters. Dumbledore asks him what he, Snape, will give him for protecting them. Isn’t this a most peculiar question? It sounds like Dumbledore is trying to strike a bargain with Snape. Surely, Dumbledore is not considering ignoring Snape’s information! The safety of a family he loves certainly does not have to be purchased with anything Snape has to give or can do. There can be no doubt that, having acquired this information, Dumbledore will not hesitate to protect the Potters, even if Snape were to Disapparate on the spot.

Snape, in repeating the word “give,” displays his astonishment at Dumbledore’’s question, indicating that the ridiculousness of the idea of a bargain for Lily’s life is not lost on him. Snape, however, does not throw this fact back in Dumbledore’’s face. He doesn’t turn on his heel and say, “I’ve given you the information, do with it as you wish,” but answers, “anything.”

Then Lily and James are dead, Voldemort has lost his powers, and Harry is an orphan. Snape is distraught and no doubt shocked on two fronts. Voldemort had not honored his request to spare Lily, and Dumbledore had not protected the family sufficiently. He does not, however, desert Dumbledore. Though angry with him, Snape accepts the truth of Dumbledore’’s statement that, if Snape truly loves Lily, his path is clear; he will help Dumbledore protect Harry.

Though Snape initially thinks Voldemort is gone and Harry won’t need protecting, he accepts Dumbledore’’s statement that Voldemort will come back without question. Thus, even in his deepest grief and his anger with Dumbledore, Snape places a high value on Dumbledore’’s opinion and clearly intends to keep his end of that unnecessary bargain.

The final component of Dumbledore’’s trust in Severus Snape is Dumbledore himself. As he tells Harry after Sirius’ death in OotP, Dumbledore is a sufficiently accomplished Legilimens and knows when he is being lied to. If Snape had been faking, Dumbledore would have known, both because of his skills in Legilimency but even more so because of his own heart.

To truly appreciate Dumbledore’’s trust in Severus Snape, we must look at the real Albus Dumbledore, the Dumbledore about whom we learn in this final installment. Dumbledore has an appreciation for the remorse a young man can feel upon realizing that his actions and associations with the wrong person have directly led to the death of a loved one. Dumbledore’’s understanding of this is due to the fact that he himself felt that very remorse all of his life over the death of his sister, Ariana. His shame was strong enough to turn him completely away from the power he sought as a young man. It caused him to devote himself wholeheartedly to the higher good. It is this most dreadful of burdens which allows Dumbledore to so quickly discern its equal in Severus Snape.